In a healthy, democratic city, art represents a diverse range of voices and experiences and is available to everyone who wants to experience it. And if you want art — theatre, dance, poetry, painting, photography, every kind of music, and everything else — you need artists.
Like everyone else, artists are being squeezed by high rents – they are being squeezed twice over if they need to pay rent on a studio or practice space. The same high rents are squeezing the venues — galleries, media art centres, music venues, independent bookshops — where Vancouverites can join the audience for the art and culture that is being produced here, now, in our city.
It gets even worse when a cultural space runs into problems with the many rules and regulations of various arms of the city. Many of the places that support important new art from bands, and performing arts companies, and visual artists who you haven’t heard of yet, and who are taking artistic risks to create glorious, startling, politically engaged, and thoughtful new art, are shoestring operations that don’t have the resources to hire the experts and consultants who can help smooth over these problems. They often don’t have the resources to survive through a sudden and unexpected shutdown, or a forced relocation.
A few cases come to mind right away. Zoo Zhop, an all-ages music venue, was peppered with confusing requests from inspectors, and eventually closed. Red Gate were driven from their premises at 152 West Hastings by escalating demands from the city. That building, which had housed studio, performance, and office space for artists and cultural organizations since the early 1980s, ended up being sold by the owner to an investor who now seems to own most of the buildings on either side of it. Around the same time, also in the 100-block of West Hastings, Dynamo Arts Centre, a studio and gallery collective, were told around by a new owner that they needed to clear out. Fortunately both Red Gate and Dynamo did find new premises in more out-of-the-way locations. But what will happen when the wave of redevelopment hits those places? Will these venues keep being chased from neighbourhood to neighbourhood until they leave Vancouver?
Market forces left to themselves will not solve the problem of vanishing cultural space. If current trends in development are left alone, our cultural venues and studios will end up replaced by condos, chain stores, fast food, nail salons and personal trainers. Unpredictable encounters with the City’s regulatory frameworks are still a danger to the cultural organizations who don’t have any “pull” within the power structures of City Hall. Little bits of money going here and there for capital improvements and feasibility studies can be helpful, but they don’t fix the underlying problems. That’s why COPE will take action to protect the kinds of buildings and locations that are best suited to the adventurous, innovative organizations, collectives, and working artists that are fostering the musicians, composers, independent filmmakers, poets, painters, sculptors, choreographers, dancers, actors, directors, and playwrights who will be important in the years to come.
We can continue trying to apply band-aid solutions to a deepening crisis, or we can vote for positive change with COPE. It’s a pretty straightforward choice.